Scary stories have rules: Leave those strange noises in the basement alone. Never trust a pet cemetery, a deserted town, or a birthday clown. And when someone suggests going white-water rafting in a woodsy hinterland so remote it’s literally off the map, just stay home. Shooting rapids in deepest Maine is hardly on Boston graphic designer Winifred Allen’s bucket list when her three oldest friends sign on for their annual girls’ trip.
Still she agrees to go along, perhaps because she believes she’s in a different kind of novel—one about friendship and adventure and finding Oprah-like inner strength in the face of adversity. (To be fair, The River at Night actually does provide all that; it just happens that “adversity” involves natural catastrophe, murderous hillbillies, and abject terror.)
Most likely, Wini says yes because she’s tired of being the one who always says no; nominally employed on the cusp of 40, numb from an ugly divorce and her younger brother’s sudden death, she is acutely aware of the hard, sour smallness of her life. If Maine promises a more challenging experience than margaritas in Cancún or bike riding on the Cape, at least they’ll be in it together.
Nearly as soon as they reach base camp, though, the group’s rhythm feels off: Alpha dog Pia, “the sparkly one,” seems more interested in bedding their 20-year-old guide, a dreadlocked conquistador named Rory, than in female bonding. Brusque ER nurse Rachel can hardly hide her disdain for Pia’s behavior, and gentle Sandra is distracted by the precarious marriage she’s left behind; Wini just hopes to make it home to her cat and lonely chardonnay unharmed. But the low hum of dissatisfaction becomes something else when Mother Nature asserts her mandate and their long weekend in the wild begins to go swiftly, spectacularly wrong. Stunned, unskilled, and already half estranged, all four are abruptly forced to face survival as an increasingly unlikely outcome.
Author Erica Ferencik’s storytelling shows the wobbles of a newer novelist, and her prose sometimes feels like a blunt instrument. (When the bad guys arrive, you can almost hear the Deliverance banjos.) But it’s brutally effective, too—hurtling River’s harrowing narrative along in a visceral, white-knuckle rush. B+